Cadence is an important aspect of cycling that needs to be understood better by coaches and athletes alike. How fast or how slow your legs spin makes a massive difference in metabolic demand as well as muscle fatigue rates over the course of a race or workout. This post will serve to educate you on what the current literature says in regards to why utilizing different cadences for each cycling discipline is important, how metabolic and muscular demand is effected by leg speed, and what this all means to you! First though, let’s define what cadence means to a cyclist:
Cadence is a measure of how many revolutions per minute (RPM) a cyclist is producing whilst pedaling. This is measured by how many times the cranks turn.
What is “Normal” Cadence?
“Normal” cadence is very subjective, but for a trained athlete you can assume they will adopt a cadence of ~90 RPM over flat to rolling terrain (1). In my experience, most beginner level cyclists will adopt a much lower cadence of ~70 RPM due to not having the neuromuscular pathways developed that allows for rapid contraction and relaxation of muscle fibers that comes with hours and hours of pedaling. Beginner cyclists may also utilize a lower cadence due to metabolic inefficiencies (which I will get to later).
“Normal” cadence can also differ by what discipline the athlete is competing in, and especially the terrain they are riding over. Lucia et, al. (1) found well trained cyclists will pedal ~90 RPM during a flat to rolling stage of a race, ~95 RPM during a time trial, and ~70 RPM over a high mountain pass.
Why the Differences?
Muscles have a finite ability to contract and relax, with this ability becoming less the more intense your ride is and the longer you ride for (cramps anyone?). So, being able to delay muscle fatigue is paramount to every cyclist. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to improve this, but for the sake of this blog post, we will discuss how different cadences can effect muscle fatigue rates.
This RPM has been established to be more demanding on the muscular system, but less demanding metabolically, i.e. you can save energy spinning slower, with the caveat of possibly fatiguing your muscles quicker (3). Perceived exertion also tends to be relatively higher at this cadence (2). Nielsen et al. (4) also found this lower cadence leading to improved endurance in well trained cyclists, at low intensities (think RAAM).
~90 RPMs has been established as the “normal” cadence for the trained cyclist. Think of this as the Goldilocks cadence where the level of metabolic stress and muscle fatigue are relatively equal, and perceived exertion is comfortable (2,3). This also tends to be a good cadence whilst sitting in a peloton as it allows you to both spin and coast with relatively ease. However, going from 60 to 90 RPM can mean a 29% metabolic demand increase, so make sure you are fueling properly.
Now we are really minimizing muscle demand, but maximizing metabolic demands. However, you really wouldn’t use this cadence level for anything other than a shorter time trial or mountain top finish where you are really trying to squeeze everything you can out of your legs. You will also normally be working at your threshold or slightly above in these scenarios, which will cause a massive dump of lactate and subsequent muscle acidosis (burn). Fortunately, at these higher cadences, the muscles can act as a pump and better flush out the acidosis-causing metabolites which results in being able to go hard for longer (5).
What Does This Mean for You?
The big takeaway here is your cadence should change based on what your goals or races are, and your build/peak phases of training should reflect it. If you are a track sprinter, don’t spend much time doing long slow cadence slogs around threshold and if you are participating in hill climbs, minimize the short and sharp high-cadence workouts accordingly. Remember though, this isn’t true for the general preparation and base phases…Another thing to remember is:
Power = Force x Velocity (cadence)
Force takes a long time to develop whereas velocity can be improved relatively quickly. If you are not spending time performing cadence-specific workouts, you are literally missing half of the equation!
So, do yourself a favor this Winter and incorporate some pedaling efficiency and cadence drills during your late base and early build phases that are specific to your goals;
- Track riders / time-trialists / short hill climbers – SPIN THOSE LEGS!
- Stage race / road racer – Goldilocks spinning mainly, but with a little bit of both high and low cadence work to replicate what you may encounter.
- Long time-trialists (like RAAM long), long mountain climbers – Make sure you are doing a fair amount of lower cadence work to get your body used to the strength demands and especially at a relatively lower intensity to improve your body’s ability to utilize fat as a fuel source.